Ancient Olympia on Fire

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Large forest fires mainly in Peloponnese, Greece (and some in Athens and the island of Euboia) are burning for four days now. 63 64 people have died, thousands have fled their homes, 110 villages have been partly or fully burnt down and hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land have been destroyed.

The fires came close yesterday to the ancient site of Olympia, the stadium and the museum, but they were diverted away only few meters before they reached the buildings and ruins. The surrounding forest has been destroyed.

The danger is not yet over for Olympia. Fires are still burning in close distance (but to opposite direction), but most of the air and ground forces have now been sent to closeby villages that are surrounded by flames.

Update 1 (27/8/07, 15:30): The latest reports from the area:

– Mount Kronos (named after Zeus’s father), which is next to the site and the museum, has been burnt to the ground.
– The surrounding area of the buildings of the International Olympic Academy, including part of the sacred forest, has been destroyed
– Some sloping sides of the stadium have been damaged.

– Both the old and the new Olympia museums have not been damaged
– The stadium has not been damaged (apart from some sloping sides)
– The antiquities have not been damaged and are safe for the moment.

Update 2 (28/8/07, 9am):

– A fire burns 5 kilometres from the archaeological site, but it is said to be under control.
– Experts from the Ministry of Culture have arrived in Olympia to assess the damages and check the electrical and security systems of the museum and the site.
– The Ministry’s Directorate of Conservation of Ancient Monuments will be checking any damages of the antiquities because of the heavy smoke.
– Groups of experts from different Ministries are visiting other archaeological sites, byzantine churches and other monuments in the area to assess the damages.
– The temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae has not been damaged, although the fire came very close.

Update 3 (28/8/07, 19:00):
– The Ministry of Culture has announced that the museum and the site of Olympia have been reopened to visitors (personally, I think that this was entirely unnecessary under the current circumstances and it may put the life of visitors at risk, taking into consideration that fires are still burning 2 kilometres east of the archaeological site).
– South of the Stadium in Olympia, an open-air (?) storage space of the the German Archaeological Institute has been destroyed and archaeological finds stored there have been damaged.
– The fire at the temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae burns 2,5 kilometres north of the site and it is under control.

Update 4 (29/8/07, 17:00):
– Conservators from the Ministry of Culture assess the damage of architectural ruins that have been exposed to fire.
– I’ve added some more photographs from the fires at Olympia (dated 26th or 27th of August).

Final (hopefully) Update (30/8/07, 09:00):
– The fires in the immediate surrounding area of Olympia have been extinguished
– The cleaning of the archaeological sites and the Museum from ashes and burnt trees is under way
– Conservation of the damaged antiquities is under way (these are mainly architectural ruins from monuments in the sacred forest, excavated by the German Archaeological Institute)
– The area of Olympia (along with other sites) has been aerial-photographed.
– Experts from the Ministry of Culture are assessing the damages of prehistoric, classical, hellenistic, roman, byzantine and post-byzantine monuments in the whole of Elis prefecture

Museologically speaking (and I may come back to that at a later time), the fires that reached Olympia have shown that the disaster plans of the archaeological site and the museums need to be reviewed. Although the site and museum have several fire extinguishing systems that can protect both the buildings and the immediate surrounding area from small or medium-size fires, it is questionable whether they could cope (again) with fires of the scale we’ve seen the last few days. Of course, Olympia is not just the stadium and the museum; the sacred forest, its flora and fauna have been heavily damaged. The length and width of the area under heavy protection from fire should be reviewed.

Peloponnese has suffered an unprecedented loss of human lives and properties from forest fires and an environmental and ecological disaster with catastrophic effects for the local (mainly rural) economy and life, the results of which are already evident and will be even more in the years to come. This summer’s disasters has shaken everyone in Greece; hopefully for the better.

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